The 1916 Uprising in Dublin was not particularly popular at the time. This should come as little surprise since 200,000 Irish served in the British Army during World War 1 and many families were dependent on the “separation” money.
Since Ireland was doing relatively well economically, with wartime exports booming, it should raise few eyebrows that the surrendering rebel forces were spat at by angry Dubliners.
Indeed the spark plug of the rebellion, Sean MacDiarmada was gloomy when escorted to his prison cell, feeling that the endeavor had been a failure; while the young Michael Collins was furious at the poor military strategy employed and felt the leadership, with the exception of James Connolly, was amateurish.
Help came - as it often does - from British over-reaction. Had the leaders not been executed it’s unlikely we’d be celebrating a 1916 centenary this month.
These leaders came from many walks of life but they shared two traits – courage and a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.
They roughly fit into three broad groups: poets and academics, professional revolutionaries, and militant socialists. Let us, for argument’s sake, choose one from each group.
Padraig Pearse, son of an Englishman, was a well-regarded poet, a Gaelic scholar, and an educationalist. Reserved, often self-conscious, but ambitious, he longed for a free, Gaelic speaking republic.
Sean MacDiarmada, though only 33, was a long-time leader and chief recruiter of the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). It was said that he had men and women in every parish and townsland in Ireland ready to rise at his command.
We can hardly pass over James Connolly as the militant socialist. Born to Irish parents in an Edinburg slum, he left school at 11 to shovel manure from the streets; he did a stint in the British Army before deserting, and eventually became a union organizer on both sides of the Atlantic.
One hundred years later Padraig Pearse is still an enigma. Ill at ease in many Dublin social settings you get a much better grasp of the man when you visit his cottage in Rosmuc, Connemara.
His one regret about the failure of the rebellion was that his brother, Willie, would also be executed. He appears to have felt that only a blood sacrifice would awaken the patriotism of the Irish people and is said to have whistled contentedly on his way to the firing squad.
Would the dashing, athletic Sean MacDiarmada have shared the same death wish had he not been struck down by polio four years previously? It’s hard to say. His left side largely paralyzed, after his release from hospital he was forced to use a cane to tap his impatient way around Dublin.
MacDiarmada knew it was only a matter of time until he succumbed to his affliction and there’s little doubt he was the prime force that kept the uprising roughly on schedule despite its cancellation by Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteers.
Connolly’s decision to go ahead with the rebellion seems the least logical for he had a wife and young family and feared for their financial and emotional wellbeing. Despite his love of books and learning, he was a very practical man, and having served in the British Army he had no illusions about his fate should the rising fail.
By Easter Monday Connolly knew there would be no supportive German invasion, so, why didn’t he wait for a more auspicious time? Perhaps he was tired of failure and was willing to risk all in one roll of the dice, for he had suffered major defeats in the recent Dublin and Wexford labor lockouts.
Or did he feel that the British authorities would soon move against the IRB and his own Irish Citizen Army thus condemning another generation of Irish workers to poverty and economic slavery.
It’s a fine line between brilliant tactical decision and death wish, but our three leaders were ultimately proved right. They did not live to see the terrible beauty they had conceived; but in the end, Irish patriotism was rekindled.
History is indeed written by the ultimate winners and that is why we celebrate Pearse, MacDiarmada, and Connolly wherever green is worn in this their glorious centenary.